The official marketing line for Leverage is “Hustle meets the A-Team”. Trading Standards would not argue with this description. It is a fine place to start. But it’s a bit like calling Buckingham Palace an oversized council house, or George Osborne a bit of a knob. You’re hitting a truth, but missing out on a wealth of detail. Now I know I’m late to the Leverage party, but regular readers will be aware that when I fall for a show, I fall hard, and at least this way I can skip all that tedious waiting for the next episode/season stuff. Let me share what I’ve learned and loved in watching 77 episodes in just over a month…
First, let’s get the basics out of the way… At its core, yes, Leverage is the US Hustle – a team of five (Nate – mastermind, Sophie – grifter, Eliot – hitter, Hardison – hacker and Parker – thief) run cons on bad people to help good people. There’s more action than I remember than in Hustle (and definitely more explosions). The cons are slick (and, of course, perpetrated on the viewers as well as the villains) and enjoyable. But there are plenty of slick, enjoyable shows – NCIS, Castle, The Mysteries of Laura, for example – that I like, set the DVR to series record for even. What these shows don’t give me that Leverage does are feelings, lots and lots of feelings.
We could start with the shout-outs. You know what a sucker I am for this stuff when it’s done well. And Leverage does it very, very well. There are the many, many nods to Doctor Who. The shout-out packed script of The First Contact Job. The joy of realising the Die Hard allusion in The Radio Job. The dozens and dozens of perfect pop culture references that John Rogers and his writers cram in are never cheap grabs for someone else’s glory. They either service plot or character development. Or work as really, really good jokes. Sometimes all three at once.
Also this is a feminist show. It’s not a coincidence that if the women get in trouble they either rescue themselves (or each other) or contribute to the rescue when it comes. John Rogers and Chris Downey, writers and Leverage’s executive producers, explicitly stated that this is what they wanted to do. In addition, they’re happy to pander to the female gaze, they resist the temptation to film inside a strip joint when the story takes them to one, and, if you’re into that kind of thing, I think almost every episode passes the Bechdel Test. It’s not perfect – but it doesn’t sexualise women the way so many shows do (looking at you in particular Burn Notice – I love you, but you are problematic). Both Sophie and Parker’s characters are rounded out as nicely as Nate, Eliot and Hardison’s. (Not uncoincidentally, this show has lots of female writers. So, a big yay to the producers for that too.)
Speaking of which, the Leverage writers (and producers and directors) are very, clever people. They will tease you and please you with tropes, then subvert them and please you even more. The final episode, The Long Goodbye Job, is a masterclass in using the language of TV to take the viewer where you want them to go. I’m saying no more because it’s too good to spoil. But you will want to watch it all over again with the audio commentary on (once you’ve recovered).
I do also have a tremendous weakness for shows that can poke fun at themselves (and actors who do likewise). Between the callbacks and the in-jokes, Leverage also scores highly for me on this score. It helps that they have an insanely talented cast. Timothy Hutton leads the ensemble and has great acting chops; Gina Bellman nails the serious and comedic every time (pregnancy-related leave reduced her screen time in series two and her presence is very much missed); Christian Kane’s astonishing physical performances shouldn’t mislead you – he has a fabulously dry sense of humour and excellent timing (rather like his character Eliot, it’s easy to underestimate him); Beth Reisgraf is outstanding – quirky (in the best way), funny and sometimes heartbreaking (also a worringly good pickpocket and eye-poppingly limber – cf The Rundown Job); and Aldis Hodge is a name to watch for the future – funny, clever and, like the rest of his team, a very fine actor (also, the ad-libs he – and Christian Kane – contribute to the show are to die for). (Oh, and the fabulous Mark Sheppard has a recurring role in which he is, typically, brilliant.)
The chemistry the ‘junior’ members of the team (Kane, Reisgraf and Hodge) bring to the show is the thing that has stayed with me (which is not to say that the writing, acting, production, direction, and all the other little details are not superb -they really are). If you were to draw them as a triangle, it certainly wouldn’t be a tidy equilateral one – more likely an obtuse scalene version – but they are perfect together. (The fact that John Rogers made the OT3 canon by the end of the show made me want to hug the screen – and him.)
Ordinarily, I’d finish by appropriating a catchphrase from the show into my “go and watch this” call to action, but as that would mean typing something along the lines of “let’s go steal a boxed set…”, I just can’t do it. But you won’t regret parting with your hard-earned cash, so lock your doors, grab some popcorn and enjoy the con.
Jo the Hat